California Dreaming: The Migration Of AHL Teams

The Migration Of AHL Teams Out West Could Be A Boon For Youth Hockey Programs
Nick Salen

New York newspaper magnate Horace Greeley coined the phrase “Go West, young man,” as a call to action for those seeking to tap into the untold opportunities in the new frontier.

The American Hockey League, with its roots historically entrenched east of the Mississippi, has heeded Greeley’s call by sending five franchises to California as part of a reconfiguration of its ranks.

Matt Taormina, Worcester SharksMatt Taormina, Worcester Sharks

The five teams — the Stockton Heat (formerly the Adirondack Flames), San Jose Barracuda (Worcester Sharks), Bakersfield Condor (Oklahoma City Barons), Ontario Reign (Manchester Monarchs) and San Diego Gulls (Norfolk Admirals) — will form the new Pacific Division along with the Texas Stars and San Antonio Rampage.

In return, three East Coast Hockey League teams — the Stockton Thunder, Ontario Reign and Bakersfield Condors — will fill the void by relocating to former AHL cities.

The seismic shift makes sense both geographically and financially for both the league and the NHL teams that have been pushing the move for several years. Having their top minor league clubs in the same time zone will ease travel costs and help NHL teams keep better tabs on their prospects.

As the primary developmental league for the NHL, the AHL features a number of players who are a step away from playing in The Show. That means that a player could be skating in Bakersfield one night and the next be suiting up for the Edmonton Oilers.

As the dust settles, the biggest beneficiary could be youth hockey programs scattered throughout the Golden State.

Matt Ford, Oklahoma City BaronsMatt Ford, Oklahoma City Barons

“We’re excited for the AHL to come out here. It’s going to be a huge success and we hope to get involved with those teams as we continue to grow our sport here,” said Steve Laing, president of the California Amateur Hockey Association.

The state currently ranks sixth in registered players within USA Hockey, growing from 11,393 in the 2003-04 season to 26,383 last year, dramatically outpacing the national growth rate. During the same time, the number of Californians playing Div. I college hockey has nearly doubled from 89 to 179.

Add in three Stanley Cup titles and a combined 23 postseason appearances in the last decade by the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks, and interest in the game continues to grow in a state once known more for surfing than ice skating.

“When you think of hockey you don’t think of California, but we’ve made some pretty big strides in the last few years,” said Art Trottier, vice president of The Rink, a conglomerate of ice and inline facilities in Southern California. “We’re seeing the benefits from it. The programs are continuing to grow out here; things are moving in the right direction for us.”

While professional hockey has been in California even before the Golden Seals opened shop in Oakland in 1967, the explosive growth of the sport out west can be traced back to Aug. 9, 1988, when Wayne Gretzky arrived in Los Angeles. Not only did The Great One’s presence boost attendance at the Great Western Forum, it also inspired kids to lace up roller skates in cities and suburbs where ice rinks were non-existent.

Chris Wagner, Norfolk AdmiralsChris Wagner, Norfolk Admirals

Similar success stories could unfold in other California cities when the AHL affiliates of the Ducks, Kings, Sharks, Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers open their doors to an untapped market of new fans.

“You’ve seen the tremendous success that the three NHL clubs have had in California, and now to bring in five more teams to provide more visibility to smaller markets, I think will help continually grow the youth hockey market,” said Ty Hennes, a former American Development Model regional manager for the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Districts.

And with a deeper talent pool comes the opportunity for more players to make it to the highest levels of the game.

“The quality of players coming out of California right now is fantastic,” Hennes added. “We have players in our National Team Development Program and playing on our Select Teams in the summer. If [the state] continues to grow the base of players and get involved in the communities and schools, that would be great.”

Former NHLer and U.S. Olympian Craig Johnson was a key component to the 1996 trade that sent Gretzky to St. Louis. In his new role as director of coaches for the Anaheim Jr. Ducks, Johnson is confident that the additional exposure brought on more professional teams will inspire a new generation of California kids to hit the ice.

“As more people are exposed to the game out here, I would think that more kids will start playing the game, and more adults will start playing as well,” Johnson said. “It’s going to help the popularity of the sport for sure.”

It’s just another sign that when it comes to hockey in California, these are golden times in the Golden State.



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